POISON STUDY by Maria V Snyder – more like rapeyness study

Standard

About to be executed for murder, Yelena is offered a reprieve. She’ll eat the best meals, have rooms in the palace, and risk assassination by anyone trying to kill the Commander of Ixia. And so Yelena chooses to become a food taster. But the chief of security, leaving nothing to chance, deliberately feeds her Butterfly’s Dust, and only by appearing for her daily antidote will she delay an agonizing death from the poison. As Yelena tries to escape her dilemma, disasters keep mounting. Rebels plot to seize Ixia and she develops magical powers she can’t control. Her life’s at stake again and choices must be made. But this time the outcomes aren’t so clear!

I kept getting whiplash, because Yelena Zaltana–heroine of Maria V Snyder’s Study series–keeps making me think of Zanja na’Tarwein, a much better character and one of the protagonists of Laurie J Marks’ far superior Elemental Logic books. They’re dark-skinned, I think, and wear red. But there the similarity ends.

Snyder’s Study series is remarkable in that it’s very thick with the rapeyness, something you don’t go in expecting on account of this being published by Harlequin. Or maybe you should expect it given that imprint, but it’s not a grimdark series and everything about its presentation suggests that it’d be safe enough to read. Most of it isn’t graphically depicted, but there is a heaping fat lot of sexual threat, incidents of rape, and the like.

What isn’t surprising however is writing like this:

As his sapphire-blue eyes scanned me, they widened in surprise.

Very fanfiction. Or how about–

The seamstress, Dilana, laughed gaily at my appearance. Her heart-shaped face had a halo of curly blond hair. Honey-colored eyes and long eyelashes enhanced her beauty. [...] Fussing around me like a grandmother instead of a young woman, Dilana’s attentions warmed me, pulling me toward her. I envisioned us becoming friends. She probably had many acquaintances and suitors who came to bask in her attentions like cave dwellers drawn to a blazing hearth. I found myself aching to reach out to her.

No, this isn’t the romantic interest. Unfortunately. Harlequin publishing lesbian romance? Oh please. It’s all straight all the way, baby. Wouldn’t want those lesbian cooties, now would we! The entire trilogy in fact is entirely absent in the gay, which I suppose is to be expected given its target audience. Straighties, straighties everywhere, the only correct sex is penis in vagina.

I won’t say much about the world-building and the like; Kyra of Ferretbrain did a much better job of that and included a rape/rape-attempt count to boot (and I would simply have linked her review if I hadn’t read further than she did: she stopped at book one, whereas I in a fit of irrationality went through most of the following two). Yelena’s schtick is that she was taken into an orphanage at a young age, raised with other children with magic potential, and then used in experiments by General Brazel and his sadistic rapist son Reyad. Yes, he raped her; yes, she killed him and his ghost hangs around to haunt her. Careful about murdering your rapists, ladies!

In the second book Magic Study there’s a mage who goes around serially raping and killing young girls to gain power. One of his motivations, incidentally, is rape (“The favorite uncle who had tied him down and sodomized him”). So… yeah. Goodness knows what happens in Snyder’s other trilogy.

Having said that, the setting is faintly interesting in that it’s a totalitarian utopia, occurring in the aftermath of the royal dynasty (and the wizards assisting them) being slaughtered. Valek, spymaster to the Commander who rules said utopia, espouses a rather peculiar–though understandably self-serving–view of it: “I don’t know what they were expecting when the Commander came to power. Mass killings? All we did was give everyone a uniform and a job.” (What happens if the Commander’s successor is a despot happy to abuse such absolute power…?)The romance between Yelena and Valek–and by the way why are they the only two characters with randomly Slavic names especially considering that Yelena and Valek originate from different countries?–fails to convince, but then again, straight people, eh. Oddly enough, despite the high concentration of rapeyness we get something like this:

As if reading my thoughts, Ari said, “Maren’s aggressive and encouraging. Every new female recruit gets her personal attention whether they want it or not. Since so many women fail due to the rigors of training, she tries to coach them through. We’ve more women in the guard now than ever because of her. We tried to get her to teach us a bow would make a good weapon for a scout but she has no interest in training men.”

Which is nice and #feminazgul, really, I approve: this also runs on into the second book, where Yelena forms many meaningful relationships with other women and have an actual life outside of her romance with Valek. In fact, her relationship with him is so uncompelling that she actually has more chemistry with pretty much everyone else, from the seamstress to the master mage Irys, that I wondered why she didn’t date either instead. NO HOMO, NO HOMO, I guess, hooray romance. There are nice touches, though; the idea of a totalitarian utopia that replaces absolute monarchy backed by magic could be interesting, but it’s fairly sketched-in. The Commander is a surprisingly compelling character, though the plot hatched to establish mind-control over him is absolutely draft and requires that everyone passes around the idiot ball endlessly, which contradicts the idea that both Commander Ambrose and Valek are brilliant strategists. Show not tell, Snyder.

The second book deals with Yelena finding her home and clan, and–

All doubts of my lineage vanished as I took note of the details that my father had put into these pictures. In that moment I knew I was part of the Zaltana clan. A feeling of relief washed through me. I vowed to try harder to make a connection with my parents. Leif, though, was another story.

Writing like this always makes it dead obvious the author’s never experienced racial estrangement–Yelena is incidentally dark-skinned whereas the rest of the Commander’s country is white–or having had her cultural heritage taken away, or that she’s absolutely comfortable with the majority culture, of which she is a part. It’s such a naive, puerile thing: Yelena meets her parents, sees her father’s sketches of her, and becomes immediately convinced that this is where she belongs.

Upon arrival at the magicians’ city she gets a master magician tearing through her brain to make sure she isn’t a spy from Ixia, the Commander’s country:

“Then you have no idea what you re talking about. Imagine being helpless and stripped bare. Your thoughts and feelings exposed to a ruthless intimate scrutiny.”

His eyes widened in shock. “But she said you fought her off. That she couldn’t fully read you.”

I shuddered at the thought of Roze going deeper, understanding why Cahil had claimed that her interrogation left some people with mental damage. “It’s worse than being raped, Cahil. I know. I’ve suffered both.”

Oh come the fuck on. Do we really have to go there. Why do so many writers make this comparison?

Yelena, naturally, turns out to be a super-magician with special soulbollocks abilities, so much so the master magician she doesn’t like comes to fear her:

Her amber eyes burned into mine with all the hate and loathing she could muster. Underneath, though, she was terrified. Hate and loathing didn’t bother me, but fear was a powerful emotion. Fear causes the dog to bite and Roze was one bitch.

It’s all very tedious, and we have a bunch of what seems to be Magical Native Americans who have names like “Moon Man” and positions like “Story Weaver”, one of whom comes to guide Yelena because she’s a super-magician soulfinduh or something. They paint their faces (sigh) and seem to have skin even darker than Yelena’s and her clan’s (sigh).

“Why do you get to decide what I need to know? Why can’t you just give me the information I ask for?” My frustration extended beyond the mystery meat.

“That would be too easy.”

“What’s wrong with easy? I can understand if the most stressful aspect of my life was worrying about Bain’s next history test, but lives are at stake. Ferde could be stealing another’s soul and I might have the power to stop him.”   

“What do you want? For me to tell you to do this or do that and wa-lah!” Moon Man flourished his hand in the air.  ”Instant success!”

Save me from incompetent authors hanging lampshades every fucking where. And because this is romance, you get Yelena actually referring to herself as “Soul mate to Valek” in all seriousness.

It’s all around very mediocre, with workmanlike and humdrum prose, so much so that when it got rereleased it was marketed as young adult. While there are some aspects that I liked, they didn’t outweigh the banal writing, the repetitive phrasing (did you know Yelena ties her hair in a bun and puts her lockpicks in it? well if you don’t the author’s happy to tell you that for the fiftieth time in one book), the cardboard villains, the sheer rape quotient.

So… nope.

6 thoughts on “POISON STUDY by Maria V Snyder – more like rapeyness study

  1. Given the number of spelling and grammar errors in the random sample you quote, this book wasn’t proofread very well either. “Fussing” is a dangling participle — and “wa-lah”?! Really? Facepalm. :/

    • Right? Terrible. I didn’t highlight any more crap about the Magical Native Americans, but they use scimitars and may well be some kind of mish-mash of every “noble savage warrior race” the author’s ever encountered in pop media rather than just, well, Magical Native Americans.

      I still don’t know how the writer wrote Yelena “aching to reach out to” the seamstress without realizing that it reads completely lesbian. It’s not the kind of phrase one associates with platonic affection, y’know what I mean?

  2. That last quoted passage, with the line about the mystery meat… I’m not even going to go at the “weird foreign food” fail. I’ll just say that this line evoked, for me, not so much fantastical vistas of wonder as memories of me and my friends grousing at the school cafeteria about what animals flesh was really in the meatloaf.

    And then “wa-lah”? That just sounds like a rendering of “voilà,” which makes Moon Man sound like a French chef. I wonder if the author has something against French cooking.

  3. Snyder’s other series are so much worse..The Valek/Yelena romance is the healthiest of Snyders written. The heroine in her Glass series ends up with the guy who tortured her at age 14/15 and who later possessed her boyfriend’s body and had sex with her (she had no idea her boyfriend was being possessed).
    The heroine in her Healer series falls for a guy who slapped her so hard she fell down just because she refused to sacrifice her life for someone who she hates (as he was responsible for the deaths of most healers), the guy also ties her to a tree for days, makes her sleep in the freezing cold without a blanket, hardly gives her any food and talks down to her.. even after he falls for her he basically says that he would rather she die than his friend.. Snyder must be stupid to think her (intelligent) readers would swoon over that romance or even find it acceptable.
    Valek is ok..but her other 2 heroes are disgusting and vile. Snyder must get off on violent, rapey guys.

    • The heroine in her Glass series ends up with the guy who tortured her at age 14/15 and who later possessed her boyfriend’s body and had sex with her (she had no idea her boyfriend was being possessed).

      I… what? The second thing is called rape!

      The heroine in her Healer series falls for a guy who slapped her so hard she fell down just because she refused to sacrifice her life for someone who she hates (as he was responsible for the deaths of most healers), the guy also ties her to a tree for days, makes her sleep in the freezing cold without a blanket, hardly gives her any food and talks down to her.. even after he falls for her he basically says that he would rather she die than his friend.

      WHAT.

      I was willing to give Snyder some slack because of the occasional glimpses of women being nice to each other and so on, and the Yelena/Valek thing being fairly tolerable, but what the fuck.

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